Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Sobs and cheers: A musical year in review

Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016

Before the end of December zips and the calendar flips, a note about Clubland: 2015 marks this column’s 20th anniversary. It started appearing in the pages of the Gazette in April 1995, and a recent scan through the archives makes me nostalgic for the sheer number of artists in their prime who used to tour through the area in a week’s time (and the stamina I had to go see them all).

In one particularly strong stretch of seven days in October 1995, local clubs and colleges brought in Guided By Voices, Jane Siberry, Throwing Muses, Man or Astro-man?, Jawbox and the astrology-happy cult fave Harvey Sid Fisher (and those were just my personal picks). They don’t make weeks like that any more.

So in this yearly round-up of my favorite concerts of 2015, the emphasis is on quality, not quantity, highlighting five big shows (three of which made me cry).

Songwriting legend Jimmy Webb played the Iron Horse in Northampton in March: a man, a microphone, 88 keys and lots of entertaining stories (he only played eight songs in his two hours on stage, though no one minded).

Webb has a skill of turning simple things mythical, like the lone Wichita lineman, a beautiful balloon and sea birds flying in the sun — all images from songs of his that were massive orchestral pop hits for others. But at the Iron Horse, played only on a piano and sung by the now-69-year-old creator himself, the compositions were somehow grander and even more emotional. Webb’s soulful versions were full of rich, multi-hued chords and improvised codas, and though he made jokes about his aging voice, he never held anything back when he sang, straining and reaching high notes with a raw power. Webb’s passionate performance of songs like “The Highwayman” and “Galveston” made them sound fresh and newly potent (and made me silently weep, which I was not expecting).

Sufjan Stevens’ entire April concert at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts was an emotional catharsis for both the audience and the artist himself. He was on tour for his intimate and devastating album “Carrie and Lowell,” which largely deals with the passing of his mother and the things she battled on the way (alcoholism, bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and eventually stomach cancer). It was an intense, tear-filled evening — watery sniffles echoed around the hushed hall starting with the night’s first gentle song, “Death With Dignity” — made even more moving by the thoughtful presentation.

A backdrop of abstract elongated hexagons doubled as ethereal church windows glowing with warm colorful light and video screens showing Stevens’ actual childhood home movies and other scenes. The lyrical arc of the show featured a harrowing, haunting song in the middle where the band, as one, sang “We’re all gonna die,” with sharp blue searchlights swinging around to illuminate the audience (in case you were trying to ignore the “we” part), and the encore sent everyone home on a catchy anthem with a similar sentiment (“All things go”) that somehow felt uplifting after the heavy journey.

Chris Weisman, a Brattleboro, Vermont-based singer/songwriter/genius who’d usually rather keep creating music at home than travel and play live shows, made a rare appearance at the Brick House Community Resource Center in Turners Falls in May, and I felt lucky to be in one of the back rows. The prolific artist put out two records in 2015 (“The Holy Life That’s Coming” and “Chaos Isn’t Single”) and his solo-voice-and-electric guitar show was full of even newer material that ended up on a third album (“Play Sharp for Me,” which hasn’t yet been released). The songs were so fresh at the time, he sang them from his notebook, and I smiled big — I was getting to hear Weisman’s latest art in person and his crafted yet playful songs were as witty and enigmatic as ever, making memorable and unique pop out of unpredictable melodic movement, chord colors, and, as he sings in “Another Cryptic Lyric,” “weird words.” His songs sneak up on you, and when you adjust to their landscape, there’s beauty and wonder in every twisty vista.

The yearly summer “Music on the Porch” series at the Florence Civic Center is always a winner — and not just because they have fresh, salty popcorn and fizzy, cold sodas for sale. It’s a beautiful community vibe, with surprised bike riders pulling over to the curb to listen, and families and friends showing up with piles of pizzas, coolers and picnic baskets. This season’s memorable highlights included two August shows: the Palmer-based eight-person-strong Herb Alpert tribute band A Taste of Honey, which serenaded the all-ages crowd on the packed lawn with a peppy sound track of perky ’60s instrumentals, and the Lonesome Brothers, in the middle of celebrating their year-long 30th anniversary, who played one great twang-rock original after another and then, the sun down and the streetlights on, rocked the siding off the building with their rendition of NRBQ’s “It Comes To Me Naturally.” It got most of the adults off their blankets and folding chairs to do some dancing down front.

Joe Jackson came to the Academy of Music in Northampton in October and played a masterfully arranged show. He started off the concert as his own opening act, playing solo numbers at the piano (“It’s Different for Girls,” “Be My Number Two”) and singing the heck out of them, rearing his head back for the high notes, before his longtime bass-playing buddy, Graham Maby, joined him onstage for Jackson’s new-wave-era classic “Is She Really Going Out With Him.” Then guitarist Teddy Kumpel and drummer Doug Yowell snuck on to set in motion a show full of old faves (“Sunday Papers,” “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” “One More Time”) and a generous helping of new songs from his acclaimed new album “Fast Forward,” including highlights like the vibrant “Ode To Joy” and the Steely Dan-influenced “King of the City.” The show was strong enough with just the excellent songs and musicianship, but Jackson cared enough to add some gently theatrical moments to put it over the top.

During the encore, when Yowell stood up from his drums and waved goodbye in the middle of the epic “A Slow Song,” I guessed how the show would soon end — with Jackson alone at his piano, just like in the beginning — but I still found myself getting emotional as each band member took their leave. At the very end, while Jackson was playing the song’s instrumental ending all by himself, he somehow secretly pressed a looping pedal, because he lifted his hands slowly off the keyboard and his part kept going. I honestly sobbed like a baby. It was as if he was lovingly putting the audience to bed with a little magic trick.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at


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